The double veto cast by Russia and China against the UN Security Resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s repression against unarmed civilians and calling for Bashar Assad to step down in favor of a coalition government harks back to the obstructionist logics of the Cold War. Besides confirming the ingrained authoritarian ethos in both countries (an ethos that does not see human rights as universal values but as contextually constructed), the blocking of the resolution stems from a mix of realist and idealist perceptions.
The idealist perceptions are rooted in the principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Russia and China argue that the UN’s actions amount to externally-forced regime change. That would be true. In their view the right to self-determination, no matter what brutality is evident in a regime’s behavior, is more important than the defense of unarmed populations against the depredations of their rulers. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia, sovereignty is the founding principle of the modern nation-state system, and other than as a result of a declared state of war it is illegitimate to attempt to externally impose a political outcome on a sovereign state (exceptions to the rule notwithstanding).
Russia and China are well aware that in recent years the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine has been formalised as part of the UN mandate. R2P states that the international community must act, with force if necessary, to protect vulnerable populations from state violence or in the face of state unwillingness or incapacity to prevent atrocities committed against innocents. Â The genocide in Rwanda was the catalyst for the R2P and it has been invoked in the Sudan and Somalia, among other recent cases.
Most importantly, R2P was invoked in UNSC resolution 1973 authorizing the use of external military force in Libya. Starting out under the pretext of protecting Libyan civilians from military assaults by the Gaddafi regime, it morphed from enforcing a no-fly zone to arming and advising anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground in pursuit of regime change. The Russians and Chinese had flagged this surreptitiously planned mission creep from the onset, and had warned that misuse of the R2P to justify armed intervention against a sovereign state government would set a bad precedent.
That is the precedent now being applied to Syria. The Russians and Chinese know full well that external intervention in Syria in pursuit of regime change is on the cards, using R2P as the justification. They also know that military intervention in Syria, should it come, has nothing to do with protecting innocents and all to do with the geopolitical balance in the Levant.
That is where realism enters the equation. China and Russia are partners of Iran. Iran is the Assad’s regime’s closest ally. Under Assad Syria has facilitated the extension of Iranian influence in Lebanon and Gaza by providing land routes for the provision of Iranian weapons, money and advisors to Hezbollah and Hamas. Should the minority Allawite Assad regime fall to a Sunni-majority coalition, then Iran will likely see its influence curtailed significantly, which in turn places Hamas and Hezbollah at greater risk from their enemies (Israel in particular). Moreover, Russia has a military base in Syria and has long been a strong military ally of the Assads. Taken together with Chinese and Russian diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran, the Assad regime’s forced demise could spell trouble. It will remove a source of Russian influence in the MIddle East. Amid all the sabre-rattling about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it will leave Iran feeling more vulnerable, at least in its own eyes, to Western machinations and internal subversion at home. This not only increases the risk of war but diminishes China and Russia’s ability to act as negotiators between Tehran and the West. Thus the fall of Assad means a diminution of their respective influence in that part of the world.
Thus, by standing on principle (non-intervention in sovereign states), Moscow and Beijing are protecting their geopolitical interests, and their relationship with Iran in particular. It may seem callous for them to do so in what increasingly looks like a civil war between the Assad regime and its people, but it is also in their short-term interest to do so. By holding their UNSC veto power, they can exercise leverage in pursuit of a more favorable accommodation that, if it does not allow Assad to remain in power, does protect their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East.
That is what is behind the double veto. In the absence of universal values and standards in the global community (due to the so-called anarchic state of nature that all realists perceive as the founding principle of international relations), the matter boils down to national interest and the exercise of power in pursuit of it. As such, Russia and China are just doing what they have to do to ensure an outcome more favorable to their respective interests, and by that logic humanitarian appeals and the invocation of the R2P simply have no place as either genuine concerns or as ruses designed to camouflage external meddling in Syrian affairs.
Sad but true.
Indeed, Pablo. Sad, but true.
Ironically, though, Russia and China often set aside their principle (non-intervention in sovereign states) when it suits them. Russia in Eastern Europe. China in New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere when they pressured local governments to boycott any official contact with the visiting Dalai Lama.
In this case, Russia and China have their interests (just as the US has it’s interests in the Middle East), and the lives of ordinary citizens are meaningless to them.
When have super-powers acted in any other way?
The double-veto is symptomatic of the state of the UN itself.
It’s a toothless shadow of its former self – dominated by member-states who no longer think of what’s right for the world, but instead of “what’s in it for me”.
Russia has long been supplier-of-record of arms and armaments to the Syrians and still maintains its last remaining offshore naval base there… and of course enabling UNSC intervention runs the rtisk of drawing unwanted attention and potential intercession in support of Chechen separatists
China too has its own interests at heart – sourcing over 60% of its oil from the region – and, like Russia, China has its own skeletons of oppression, such as Tibet, or the Uighurs of Mongolia.
Hence the need for the USA and her allies to walk away from the UNSC and take decisive action to address the gross voilations of the Assad regime.
“Itâ€™s a toothless shadow of its former self â€“ dominated by member-states who no longer think of whatâ€™s right for the world, but instead of â€œwhatâ€™s in it for meâ€.”
I am not familiar with this fearless, courageous, idealistic “former self” UN that you have described. Did it exist in the Good Old Days, when kids showed some respect, men were men, and you could get jellybeans for one cent a piece?
Another perspective on Syria and the lead up to the Veto.
Ah, Pepe Escobar – simply the best! Thanks for the reminder, l_f.
And more from the other side:
Pablo mentioned how the Libya adventure “morphed” from the original intent of 1973, but it morphed further than just the provision of arms and “advisors.”
Nato conducted something like 10,000 “strike sorties” over Libya, with multiple bombs, of course, on each plane, and the civilian death toll has been kept pretty quiet but unsubstantiated reports mention figures in the 15-20,000 region.
In other words, Nato just declared a secret war on all Libyans living in non-rebel areas.
Just look at the pictures of Sirte after Ghaddifi’s death. The town was flattened.
Perhaps Joe Bloggs could think about this, and re-read what Pablo had to say about the reasons behind any US/Nato intervention, if it were to occur: it’s not the innocents, stupid! (Hat tip, Bill Clinton)
It’s times like these that it pays to remind ourselves of the first rule of humanitarian intervention – first, do no harm.
In addition to all the geo-political strategies at play here, and I’m sure there are many, China and Russia always objected to the eventual course of the intervention in Libya, and I think they were offended at being, in their eyes, duped into abstaining on 1973, hence the veto.
And I’ll put my hand up for being duped too! Now how does that famous Bushism, fool me twice or something…go again?